Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why the New Intellectuals Don't Cut It

Back in the mid-1990s I met one Cuda Brown (not his real name) online. We hit it off and went on to establish one of the first black zones on the internet. We started out as Meanderings, a newsletter that Cuda had been circulating privately among his friends, but it time that morphed into Gravity, which then died because we didn't have the means to sustain the effort. But it was fun for the year or so that it lasted. We had one of the first discussion forums on the web, something that Cuda coded up in a DB program – Informix? – and we did a collaboration with Vibe Magazine on the trial of O. J. Simpson.

Cuda wrote a number of pieces, including this stunner on his early days as a black nationalist, and I wrote some, including this one from March 1995, which I'm reprinting here on New Savanna. It's a bit old, but made a point or two. Black intellectuals now have a lot more to say about music than they did back then, though not, I'm sure, through any influence by this piece. It's just the logical thing to do. As for the psychology I discuss, still a deafening silence. You might want to look at the list I give, which I took from Robert Boynton's piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and see how they've fared over the last two decades. BTW, you might notice that the domain name for those various pages is "newsavanna". Where do you think I got the name for my blog?

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Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Bring that man's baby back.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack! . .
I want my spirit back.
Bubble music being seen and heard on Saturday night
Blinding the eyes of ones that's supposed to see!
Bubble music, being played and showed, throughout America.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . .
Somebody's mind's got off the goddamn track!
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . . .
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
. . . .
Who will it be? Who will it be?
It certainly won't be someone that says that they're free.
– Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The Atlantic Monthly for March [1995] features an important article by Robert S. Boynton about "The New Intellectuals," by which he means a group of thinkers who are both public intellectuals and black intellectuals. They are public in the sense that they often address themselves to a general educated audience rather than speaking exclusively to an audience of academic specialists. They are black in two senses. In the first place they have enough so-called black blood in their veins that they would be classified as black by census-takers. In the second they are variously concerned with what it means to black and American, or American and black, or, increasingly, just plain American.

Toward the end of the article, Boynton asserts that "If today's black intellectuals have not yet–with the exception of Toni Morrison's extraordinary novels–produced a body of work that will sustain itself through the Darwinian selection process of American culture, there is no reason to believe that they won't. They are relatively young, and a number seem to be just hitting their stride." The purpose of this essay is to suggest that if these 40-something intellectuals (plus or minus a decade) don't soon get some funkadelic glide in their stride, some jivometric pep in their step, there is little chance that they will produce a deep and abiding body of work, though one can always hope that they will produce an intellectual climate in which others may come along and walk where they fear to tread.

As a group, their collective work has two central weaknesses in my view:
  1. However much they may admire black music, they don't make it central to their thought and writing.
  2. Whatever they may know about the psychodynamics of racism, they are unwilling to talk and write about it.
The joint effect of their blindness is that they cannot address themselves to the deepest dynamics of American culture. They weave elegant designs around the edges, but the warp and woof are invisible to them.

Caveat Emptor – “Don't let a fox stand guard over the chickens”

Before I begin, I should make a disclaimer or two. First, the weaknesses I've indicated don't apply uniformly to all in Boynton's anointed group, which is a large and diverse bunch of folks including, in no particular order:
Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Orlando Patterson, Shelby Steele, David Levering Lewis, Stanley Crouch, Patricia Williams, William Julius Wilson, bell hooks, Houston Baker, Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Jerry Watts, Robert Gooding-Williams, Nell Painter, Thomas Sowell, Ellis Cose, Juan Williams, Lani Guinier, Glenn Loury, Michelle Wallace, Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, June Jordan, Walter Williams, and Derrick Bell.
Stanley Crouch and Gerald Early have, for example, written extensively about black music. Houston Baker has written a book about hip hop, though he's more concerned with the lyrics than with rhyme, rhythm and artistic technique. Cornel West has a chapter in Race Matters about sex and race, which is at the heart of racist psychodynamics. For the most part, however, the music is more admired than analyzed and understood and the subject of psychodynamics is left untouched and, therefore, unscathed.

The other qualification is personal and negative. I haven't read all of those folks, so I may well be sticking a foot or two in my mouth. Just so you know, I have read at least something, and generally more, by the following: Toni Morrison, Orlando Patterson, Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Houston Baker, Gerald Early, Thomas Sowell, and Juan Williams. Beyond this, I know something about the work of many of those whom I haven't read. In particular, I know their work doesn't address the issues I've mentioned above.

While critiquing individuals for what they don't do is a doubtful enterprise, and one I will nonetheless undertake, my real criticism is of the group. Boynton has written about and invested hope in them as a group. My criticism is directed at deficiencies in the intellectual program one can expect of this aggregation. To the extent they can control and influence discourse about America, we are in trouble. That trouble is not so deep as that presented by, say, the religious right, but it is a trouble progressive folk would be better off without.

Finally, regardless of what may seem to be a rather nasty critique, I should say that reading these folks has given me much pleasure and more than a little insight. Thus my criticism is in the spirit of the "loyal opposition." They have much to teach us. But, they also have much to learn about themselves and about America. It's about time they cut the cord and get on with it.

Music and The New Intellectuals

Let's begin by looking at just why these folks don't write very much about the music so many of them clearly love and draw on for spiritual strength. The reason is simple. They are intellectuals functioning in a tradition which has been and still is deeply suspicious of music (and any other expressive form, though literature has received partial dispensation since it consists of words artfully arrayed). Hence that tradition doesn't demand that you have any significant understanding of music in order to sport the credentials of an intellectual or that you take such understanding into the public arena. Plato condemned music 2400 years ago and the curse has stuck. The sin of the father has been dogging the sons and daughters ever since.

Thus, if you go into the stacks of any major research library you'll find many more pages about Shakespeare than Beethoven, Balzac than Mozart, Dante than Bach, or Goethe than Brahms. Clearly, music is not held in so high a regard as literature. No doubt that this is in part attributable to the fact that writing about music seems more difficult than writing about literature. To go much beyond impressionist evocation of feelings and styles, you must learn something of music theory so you can discuss technique and structure in musical terms. When well done, such as Charles Rosen's superb The Classical Style, the result is as deep and illuminating as any work of literary analysis. But, on the whole, the intellectual community clearly does not believe the end is worth the trouble of actually learning how to think about music.

Thus, when the current crop of African-American academics prefers literature (and history) to music, they are simply following the pattern established by European intellectuals and academics going back to Plato. For, make no mistake, that is the intellectual tradition in which they operate, in which all of us operate (including the Afrocentrists). This tradition leaves them ill-equipped to consider African-American music, both in and of itself and as it has influenced American, and, for that matter, world music.

This situation is deeply odd and quite unsettling. Consider a remark Gates made in the introduction to Signifying Monkey where he says that "Black literature shares much with, far more than it differs from, the Western textual tradition..." The stories may be about black people, and they may also confront racism, but the manner of the story telling is largely derived from Western literary forms. That is to say, Black literature is a variety of Western literature.

That is most emphatically not true of black American music. Whatever it owes to classical music, and it owes a great deal, African-American music is not a variety of Western music. Nor, Afrocentric wishful thinking to the contrary, is it a kind of African music. It has gathered its various sources and tributaries into itself and reorganized them with such energy and originality that it functions free and clear of those scattered sources. African-American music is an autonomous and fundamental source of cultural vitality, one which has been prodding and driving American culture and society for about two centuries and which has, in this century, clearly assumed the leadership role. Not only has black music had a profound influence on white music in America, and in Europe and in Latin America, it has had a profound influence around the world. As Eldridge Cleaver observed 25 years ago in Soul on Ice:
And although modern science and technology are the same whether in New York, Paris, London, Accra, Cairo, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Peking, or São Paulo, jazz is the only true international medium of communication current in the world today, capable of speaking creatively, with equal intensity and relevance, to the people in all those places.
Since then soul and rock and hip hop have made the world tour as well. Black "made-in-America" music is the closest thing the world has to a universal emotional language.

So, why aren't the new intellectuals front and center in trying to understand where, when, how, why, and what are the implications? Gates is, of course, free to study whatever he wishes. And, one by one, we must allow each of these intellectuals that same freedom. Unfortunately, when you look at their efforts as a whole, the music gets admiration and appreciation but very little analysis and understanding. While I don't doubt that the appreciation is sincere, I find myself forced to entertain grave doubts about their collective sense of intellectual responsibility for the deep and tangled truths of American culture. They see what they have been trained to see, not what is there. It is time that some of them undertake the hard work of learning about music, or at least encourage their students to do so.

Racial Psychodynamics

In Chapter 9, "Revolution," of The Dusk of Dawn [1], W.E.B. Du Bois, that most significant of African-American intellectuals, says:
My own study of psychology under William James had predated the Freudian era, but it had prepared me for it. I now began to realize that in the fight against racial prejudice, we were not facing simply the rational, conscious determination of white folk to oppress us; we were facing age-long complexes sunk now largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge...
That is all he has to say on the matter. He sees the relevance of Freudian psychology, but did not bring himself to write the analysis which is so clearly necessary. Nor has much been said since then. In particular, these brave new public intellectuals have not yet undertaken to provide the analysis which Du Bois only implied.

I certainly don't know exactly what Du Bois had in mind, but I know enough about psychoanalytic theory to see that it is relevant. And I have read a few articles and books where people spell it out (see my "Music Making History" [2]). The basic idea is simple: European culture stresses emotional restraint. In particular, aggressive and sexual impulses must be denied. Such impulses nevertheless stick around and keep fighting for an expressive outlet. Consequently, people restrained by this culture have a tendency to project their sexuality and aggression onto others, in particular, black folks. This is why they see every black woman as a temptress of good god-fearing white men and every black man as a rapist and murderer of innocent white women and children.

There is absolutely nothing daring or intellectually radical about such thinking, which has been embraced by such mainstream thinkers as the sociologist Talcott Parsons and the psychologist Erik Erikson. Yet, one reads very little discussion along these lines anywhere, and certainly not in the writings of these new intellectual leaders.

However, many of them surely must be familiar with such thinking. For one thing, the seed is right there in the canonical center of Du Bois's work. For another, some form of psychoanalytic thinking is absolutely commonplace in the colleges and universities where these folks teach and write and where they were trained. In any event, I'm sure that at least two of those intellectuals have encountered such ideas but have not bothered to discuss them, either favorably or not.

Gates has edited a collection of essays on racism for the journal Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1985) which includes a conceptually tepid, though historically fascinating, essay by Sander Gilman entitled "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature." Among other things, to put it a bit too simply and crudely, this essay shows how good Victorian gentlemen came up with intellectually respectable reasons for examining and making detailed drawings of the genitals of black, but not white, women. These gentlemen were undertaking scientific research into the anatomy of exotic races and were thus precursors to those editors who placed pictures of bare-breasted native women in National Geographic and to all of us adolescents who searched out those pictures. Gilman's article thus provides such a very good example of the projective psychology of racism that you would have to give yourself a lobotomy to comfortably ignore the ugly psychology thus implied. But Gates has not, to my knowledge, chosen to discuss such matters.

West provides the other example. In an essay, "Race and Social Theory" (Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, Routledge (1993), he provides a nice systematic account of conservative, liberal, and Marxist views of racism. In the process of telling us how he would construct his own theory of racism, he mentions Joel Kovel but doesn't discuss his work (nor, for that matter, does he actually offer a theory of racism, preferring to list the ingredients without actually making the dish). Kovel has written a book, White Racism, which is an extensive psychoanalytic treatment of racism, much richer than my crude little sketch would suggest possible. West has not, to my knowledge, actually discussed Kovel's ideas, or any similar ideas. He just tells us they are important. If those ideas are important, why not summarize, discuss, elaborate, and add to them?

Why are these people – for I'm sure Gates and West are not the only ones who have encountered this line of thought – silent? Possibly, despite obvious temptations and attractions, in the end they don't think these ideas worthwhile. If so, then they have some obligation to state their objections. Doing that, however, requires that you state the ideas themselves. And that seems to be the sticking point. The ideas have been around, some of the intellectual leaders know about and have read them, but they can't bring themselves to discuss them. However you spell it out, it comes down to one thing – a lack of intellectual courage.

You can see these painful and destructive psychological dynamics exhibited and illuminated in the literary works of Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed, of Richard Wright and William Faulkner, of Ralph Ellison and Mark Twain. But these very literary-minded intellectuals have crippled their capacity to discuss those works. These intellectual lions are, on the matter of courageous conviction, merely paper tigers.

American Cultural Dynamics: Why do White People Like Black Music?

These two matters, music and psychodynamics, come together when you ask one simple question: Just why do white people like black music? The question is an important one because at least 200 years of cultural history are behind it. That is how long white Americans have been adopting the music of black Americans for their own expressive use, with the most intense borrowing and adaptation taking place in the 20th century. It is absolutely impossible to imagine American culture without black music in all the nooks and crannies, but no one has set about the task of giving a full-scale analysis and explanation of why this has come about, though there is a great deal of historical writing on when and how it came about. I have seen the question posed by a white jazz critic, Martin Williams (in The Jazz Tradition), by a white ethnomusicologist, Charles Keil (in Urban Blues), and a New Zealander, Christopher Small, has made a strong run on the question (in Music of the Common Tongue, which, however, says little about psychology), but none of the new intellectuals have really posed the question much less set about constructing answers.

The question's answer is obvious: white people like black music because it gives them ways of expressing themselves which their own music lacks. Everyone knows that the blues and jazz and soul are sexy, and there has never been a more aggressive music than hip hop. White people listen to black music for the same reason black people do: to discover themselves and thereby find hope for the future. It is that simple, and that deep.

[Note: some white people (and some black ones too!) actively oppose black music and its influence on their conception of white music, particularly the influence on young white children.]

And the new intellectuals can't touch it because they don't have the intellectual equipment needed to deal with music and they won't use the equipment needed to handle the psychological end. The upshot of this is that none of them have written a work of cultural criticism as deep as that written by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). The odd thing is, Baraka has little technical knowledge of music that I know of, and little interest in the psychodynamics of racism. Still, Blues People is a substantial achievement, one that the new intellectuals have yet to confront, much less master and surpass, though some of them may have read it (Stanley Crouch, for example, has read and thrown the book at Blues People; but, then, he seems to throw the book at everything!).

Baraka makes four points which need to be dealt with:
  1. The blues is an expressive form which arose when ex-slaves and the sons and daughters of slaves came to term with being free citizens in the United States.
  2. Jazz was the first African-American expressive form "capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well."
  3. The value structures of white America and black America are different in such a way that for Bix Beiderbecke to play jazz, he had to rebel against his culture, while Louis Armstrong was simply fulfilling the expressive ideals of his rather different culture.
  4. As whites have more or less successfully imitated black music, blacks have responded by creating new musics beyond the current reach of whites.
I don't think any of these ideas can be taken at face value, and I certainly don't intend to discuss them myself, not in the limited confines of here and now (though I have, to some extent, dealt with the last three points in "Music Making History" [2]). My point is that these so-called new intellectuals have hardly dealt with these issues at all, and it is their professional responsibility to do so. They may not like Baraka's ideas, but it is irresponsible to ignore them.

To deal with Baraka, you must, in the first place, do more than admire and appreciate music, black , white or any other music. You have to think music worthy of serious intellectual attention and be willing to make the conceptual investment required to write intelligently about it. To do that you must surely transcend the limitations of an essentially European conception of what can and must be thought about, for that conception has not been kind to music nor to other non-verbal expressive forms.

To go beyond Baraka's formulations you must explicitly take up psychodynamics. For it is psychodynamics which is at the core of white culture, black culture, and the complex dance between them. And once you understand those psychodynamics, and their relationship to music, and to dance, theater, comedy, preaching, and politics as well, you will be in a position to think about how black/white interaction through expressive culture has been so important in weakening the hold racism has on the American soul, perhaps even more important than political and legislative action.

Perhaps these new leaders fear that an indictment of white psychopathology is somehow too militant, too black, for our current progressive era. Banish the fear. After all, there are some powerful politicians who are gleefully taking us back to the Stone Age without benefit of prior nuclear bombardment. Our progressive era is looking more and more regressive by the minute.

Perhaps more to the point, the projective dynamics of repression aren't now and never have been the exclusive property of white people. The nastier forms of black militancy surely depend on scapegoating white and Jewish people just as white racists have scapegoated blacks. Thus, were the new intellectuals to undertake a psycho-cultural analysis of white racism, they would surely have to follow with a parallel analysis of black racism and every other color of racism under the multispectral sun. Holding people accountable for the desires and actions of the soul has nothing to do with militancy and everything to do with principle.

Teach Me Tonight: We Need Responsible Voices

I am reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein's assertion that the eye, as the organ of sight, cannot thereby see itself. So it seems with these new intellectuals. Boynton is on point in writing about them as he has done; these black intellectuals are very much at the center of our public intellectual life. There are social/psychological/cultural reasons for that. But, their blindess on matters musical and psychological means that these citizen intellectuals are unaware of the deepest social and psychological currents on which they ride. They don't know where they get their power and currency.

Boynton's great hope is that these intellectuals, in moving beyond black concerns, will look deep into the heart of America and tell us something new and liberating about ourselves. On the evidence to date I would say that hope is misplaced. Still, they are professional intellectuals. As such they are obligated to seek the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be to countenance, no matter how treacherous it may be to construct. If they cannot face up to the gnarled and ugly/beautiful miracle which is the heart of America, how can they help rest of us to do so?

Talk alone will not heal us, but talking is a good starting point. If those intellectuals are to be significant leaders, rather than simply the purveyors of the latest, "yet another intellectual fashion", albeit one with a sepia tone, then they must look deep into themselves to find the courage, imagination, and intellectual discipline needed to help America understand where it has come from and where it has the potential to go. As West has remarked, America is "the first new nation that had to deal with [a diverse cultural make-up] in a very, very real sense..." America is a grand and totally unplanned cultural experiment. If America cannot learn to live with the diversity it has been intimate with through four centuries, then what hope has the world to live with its much greater and far stranger diversity?

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[1] Here's a post about the structure of Du Bois' book: "A Myth of Africa: Ritual Structure in Dusk of Dawn", New Savanna, Accessed October 12, 2017,

[2] William Benzon, "Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues", in Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press. pp. 189-233.

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